Providing a Sense of Independence & Freedom
To Children & Young Adults with Special Needs at Carousel Ranch
Life is hard. It’s even harder if you are a person with special needs. The simple tasks we do each day, sit up in bed, tie our shoes, drive a car… are great challenges for others. We are thankful there are people like Becky Graham and Denise Redmond in the world that have dedicated their lives to finding ways to improve the lives of others.
Following their hearts and their love of horses, Becky and Denise founded Carousel Ranch just outside Los Angeles in Santa Clarita, CA. Utilizing the unique benefits and the healing power of horses, their therapeutic riding and vocational programs assist in building muscle tone, balance, focus, motor skills and life skills while in a comforting environment that gives their students a sense of freedom and independence like no other.
Becky & Denise, what inspired you to create this special place?
Carousel Ranch was created because [we] wanted to do so much more than we were able to do at other programs. We wanted to create a more individualized program where every child’s therapy looked different, based on their own individual needs. We wanted to create an equestrian therapy program that allowed us to think outside of the box and let us be creative – allowing for every student to be successful.
We never put any limits on our kids – always believing in the things they could do, not the pre-conceived list of things they could not do. And that concept led to the program combining the use of therapeutic vaulting, western and English riding and so much more. Whether serving one student or 80…that concept has never changed and it worked because the two of us have always shared in the same vision.
“Every student, every day for the last 24 years has personally taught me something.”
—Becky Graham, Co-Founder & Program Director
“To an individual with special needs, therapeutic riding takes them into a new, unexplored world, providing a sense of independence and freedom that challenges riders in ways they have seldom been challenged before.”
—Denise Redmond, Co-Founder & Executive Director
Denise, how did Carousel Ranch and its therapeutic riding programs come to life?
Becky and I both worked for another program for 12 years. During that time, we were doing much of the work to run that program — myself as the assistant to the Executive Director and Becky as Program Coordinator. Over time, we both had a lot of responsibilities running the day to day program, operations and administration. We quickly became close friends and had so many ideas and thoughts on how we could do more and things that would make the program stronger. These were simply not things that the director of that program was open to. We had talked and dreamt about creating our own program for many years. Becky left before I did, but in time I left as well and though we were working other jobs — we missed the work so much.
We had parents contacting us who had been on the other program’s waiting list begging us to work with their children while they waited for services. And so, we did. It really was more of a hobby at the time — serving our first student, Kimi, on Wednesday nights. But then others began to ask us and soon we had three, then five and then ten students. We moved to Sylmar Equestrian Center where we grew to about 20+ students. In time we ended up in Santa Clarita as leases ended and our needs changed. That move was truly the saving grace for the Ranch as the community embraced the program, enabling growth and changes along the way.
There were so many challenges and struggles through the years, but we always had amazing mentors, supporters and board members by our sides and together it became so much more that we could have ever imagined.
A Love for Horses & Listening to Your Heart
Becky, have you always loved horses? Was working with special needs children always your plan?
I have owned and loved horses since a young age of 5 years old, and I’ve been passionately involved with them ever since. I had decided when my oldest daughter went to Kindergarten that I too would go back to school, with the intention of obtaining a degree as a Physical Therapist with an emphasis on children. During the second semester, I had to find a business to do my community service hours and I chose a therapeutic riding program close to home…Ahead With Horses. I spent the next 2 years volunteering and becoming much more involved than I had intended.
The combination of the horses, the many children with special needs, and being outdoors was exactly my dream come true. The Director had offered me a job numerous times and finally I agreed, knowing that this was the type of work I wanted to do.
Fast forward to when Denise was also working at AWH, and we hit it off immediately, knowing that we had the same vision for the program. However it wasn’t our program to implement changes to, and so over the years we both left for different reasons, but we both missed the work tremendously. Denise and I discussed starting our own program as a “hobby” but little did we know 24 years ago where that would take us, and most importantly what Carousel Ranch would become.
Denise, what makes you so passionate about equestrian therapy?
This was truly one of the last things that I could have envisioned as my career. At 18 years old, I was in my first year of college where I was majoring in Journalism and Public Relations (I wanted to be a magazine editor). I was working for a small local newspaper and one day I was asked to take a last minute assignment to cover a non-profit equestrian therapy program’s trail opening. Little did I know, that day would literally change the course of my life. Have you ever had a moment that literally took your life into a different direction? This was literally that moment for me. Here I am nearly 36 years later and I am so glad that I listened to my heart and that the rest was history.
I attended the trail opening for Ahead With Horses. I remember the day so clearly, watching a demonstration with their students — performing on a huge Clydesdale. I watched them leave crutches and wheelchairs behind and perform incredible feats on horseback, with one doing a hand to hand handstand (visualize the instructor sitting on top of the horse with arms extended to the sky with the child doing a handstand above her). I had never seen anything like it and I was so moved that after I finished interviewing the director, I let her know that if she ever had an office job, I would love to work there. I wrote my story and that was the end of it.
But, a few months later, she called me and offered a job as an office clerk. From there the rest was simply meant to be. I finished college and stayed after gradually working my way up and learning so much. Becky and I had so much vision for what that program could be and we were simply limited by what we could do there. In time, after my second daughter was born, I left the program and worked as a Development Director at a private school.
It was during that time that Becky and I realized just how much we missed the work and knew that we still wanted and needed to pursue opening our own equestrian therapy program. It was just a small simple idea at the time, starting on Wednesday nights in her backyard with just one student. Her husband even had to loan us the money to pay for insurance before we began. We filed our non-profit paperwork – and here we are almost 24 years later.
Discovering Abilities, Promoting Independence & Freedom
Through Equestrian Therapy & Vocational Training
Tell us about some of the programs at Carousel Ranch.
Carousel Ranch is one organization with two programs. Our mission statement is: Carousel Ranch is dedicated to improving the lives of children and young adults with special needs. Through both our equestrian therapy and vocational training programs, we strive to create an atmosphere where every student can and will succeed…a place where therapy is disguised as fun.
Equestrian Therapy Program
The equestrian program is the backbone of what we do. Prior to Covid-19 we were serving about 80 students per week and are proud to say that before the last shut down order we had 63% of our students back riding.
To an individual with special needs, therapeutic riding takes them into a new, unexplored world, providing a sense of independence and freedom that challenges riders in ways they have seldom been challenged before. The movement of the horse causes an inherent response from the child, relaxing muscles that are tight, increasing tone in muscles that are weak, building balance, coordination and control, increase motor skills, improvements in behavior and sensory processing.
“In the tradition of giving to the ones we love, February is the month for Carousel Wishes & Valentine Kisses. Be generous by keeping our kids close you your heart.”
Please consider making a donation to Carousel Ranch today on thier website.
The goals and benefits are different for each student, as we strive to help each achieve objectives, discover capabilities and reach new levels. An individual program is created — combining all available methods, with program plans designed for each child’s specific needs. Progress is consistently monitored and evaluated as a student matures and develops, their program is modified to grow with them. The program utilizes the sport of vaulting (gymnastics on a moving horse), English, and Western riding. Each child is served individually (no group lessons, with up to four people working with each child depending on their needs).
We strive to work on the same things that are being targeted in traditional forms of therapy, taking it out of a clinical setting and creating an atmosphere where our students can achieve success.
It is these “basics” that make Carousel Ranch a rare program with many students participating for well over a decade and even some since the very beginning. An individual program is created — combining all available methods — with exercises targeted for each child’s specific needs. Progress is consistently monitored and evaluated as a child matures and develops, their program is modified to grow with them.
Vocational Training Program
In 2016, Ready to Work! was created in response to the needs of our “children” who had now grown up. Between 18- 22, these young adults “age out” of the education system, which is a disorienting event that alters their routine, isolates them from friends and mentors, leaving many without a daily purpose. Ready to Work! is helping to change that scenario, showing that each has skills and abilities enabling them to be contributing members of society. Since inception 39% of those who completed our Level 1 program had secured paid employment (prior to Covid19). Of those who have gone on to complete our Level 2 program, 83% have been employed.
Level 1: Vocational Training Program
A 12 week program focusing on “soft-skills”, i.e., clocking in and wearing a uniform, working as a team, appropriate behavior, eye contact, being flexible, having a positive attitude, etc. These are essential skills needed to not only get a job, but to be successful in keeping it. Students complete a resume, learn and practice interview skills and finish far “readier to work”.
Curriculum is then brought to life by working in the “Tack Shack/Snack Shack” or various tasks on the grounds of Carousel Ranch and in the community. Experiences are varied including horse/ranch care, vehicle washing, events, construction, office work, retail, food service and work within our “Ready to Grow” garden.
Following completion of Level 1, many students continue with:
Level 2: Vocational Training Program
* This 1:1 component, works to further individual efforts to secure employment, volunteer work, enroll in continued education/ training, further their ability to use public transportation and for some — even getting their driver’s license.
* Ready to Work! Academy at College of the Canyons is changing the face of postsecondary education for young adults with special needs. Certificate based courses include subjects such as Customer Service (Retail, Food Service & Hospitality) and Warehouse Fulfillment & Logistics (with more in development). Courses encompass both weekly classroom training at COC and practicum/work experience at partner businesses including Starbucks, Holiday Inn Express and AMS Fulfillment.
Every Day Looks Different
How has Covid-19 affected your daily operations?
We seem to always be evolving and planning. This past year has been a huge challenge for us, as it has been for literally everyone. That said, we have worked very hard to maintain our staff, continue raising funds and keep the program going.
We had initially closed for services for three months following the onset of Covid-19 but reopened in June, 2020 and by November were back to serving 63% of our riders and had a new Level 1 Ready to Work! class back up and running while delivering many virtual learning opportunities. Though we had to close again in December – we are awaiting the ok to re-open again. So…this year, that is the goal…to get back to serving all of our students again and even being able to take new students off of our waiting list.
We know that it will take time to recover (both in service delivery and funds raised) getting us back to where we were and beyond. But, passion and perseverance are simply a part of who we are and we have no doubt that Carousel Ranch will come out of this time even stronger than we were.
What do you personally spend most of your time doing for Carousel Ranch?
Becky: Oh boy that’s a great question! Having a program that serves 80 riders a week (pre-COVID), 18 head of horses, 20+ acres of ranch property, along with a dozen program staff, my days are definitely full with overseeing or being involved in all of it.
My number one priority is working with clients, especially those who have greater needs and are more physically challenged. If I’m not personally working with the clients, I like to either lead the horse or side-walk in other lessons in order to measure how things are going. I’m grateful & proud of the program staff and Instructors, as they’ve shown to be dedicated and passionate about the services they provide to all of our students.
While not as often as I would like, I also love working with the horses and so that is something I try to do on a regular basis. Keeping the horses fit, happy & healthy is never taken for granted, and I am always researching better ways and products for their longevity. All of the horses have a fitness routine based on their own individual needs, and I am always involved in choosing the right human to facilitate it for each of them.
Overseeing the property maintenance and equipment also falls to me, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea I actually “mostly” enjoy the challenge of keeping it all running smoothly (with help of course). Over the last 15 years since Carousel Ranch bought the property in Agua Dulce there has been huge transformations that we all can be proud of – and yet there’s always something else that needs fixing or doing.
We built 8 raised garden beds on the property that are used in our Ready to Work! Program, and along with the beautiful greenhouse we have onsite I like spending quiet time tending to whatever we happen to have growing.
Denise: Becky and I have always had separate but equal roles – myself as Executive Director and she as Program Director, both bringing expertise in totally different areas, while always being there to support and work with the other in whatever ways needed. In the early years, I spent more time helping Becky outside in lessons (as it was literally the two of us and her then 11 year old daughter Katie – who is our Associate Program Director today).
The reality is that as Executive Director – every day looks different. I always start with my long list of things to do, but other things happen that require a shift in my attention – which could literally be just about anything imaginable. It certainly keeps me busy, flexible and on my toes. And during these times of opening and closing due to Covid-19, along with all of the fundraising challenges that come with it, the job is all the more challenging.
But overall, my main focus is on day to day management, supervising and operations while spending a great deal of time working on fundraising, grants, relationship building, working with the board of directors, finance, organizational sustainability/planning and all things administrative. In addition, I have been very involved with the growth and development of the Ready to Work program over the past four years.
I will say that although my role requires mostly administrative work, I still treasure the moments when I can work in a lesson, interact with the parents or help out with students in the Ready to Work! program. Those are the things that still feed my passion for this work.
Life Changing Stories
Anything is Possible With Creative Thinking & Determination
Do you have a specific story about the magic that happens at Carousel Ranch that really inspires you?
Denise: That’s a really hard question as literally every time I walk out of the office and watch lessons or even sit and talk to a parent about the progress they have seen…it inspires me. (I need to do more of that!).
People like to hear about successes such as the students that we have seen walk or talk for the first time. And, while that does happen from time to time, more often it is about building upon small layers of success that add up to enable a child to do more and become their very best, whatever that might be. From one who gained enough sitting balance to now be able to sit in the grocery cart while their parent shops, to another who can now bear enough weight to stand and pivot to get in and out of the car. These are life changing things that most simply don’t think about.
There are literally hundreds of stories that come to mind. But this one is unique and a perfect example of how simple things that we take for granted can be such big things in reality.
I remember talking to a parent on the bench and her sharing that her biggest struggle was the fact that she could not brush her daughter’s hair. Imagine the looks from others as they assumed her tangled hair was perhaps a lack of care – resulting in having to cut her hair very short to avoid the stigma and struggles. That day, I spoke to Becky about the challenges and right then and there, Becky got a horse brush and had me ask Emma’s mom if she was ok with us attempting it on the horse…horse brush and all – her mom was on board!
Becky taught her to brush her horse and then transitioned to Becky being able to brush her hair while riding. Over a few week period, this became a big part of the lesson and in time…it was no longer an issue. These words from her mom say it all:
“When our daughter Emma started at Carousel, we had never been able to brush her hair without her screaming and having a tantrum. It was an everyday problem since she was a toddler. Becky and the fabulous volunteers at Carousel worked with Emma and within the first three weeks a miracle happened. For the first time in her life, they were able to brush her hair while she rode the horse without her screaming. You can’t imagine what a miracle it was to behold this simple task being done without a struggle. We are now able to brush Emma’s hair at home and continue to marvel at this simple achievement. The team at Carousel continues to work on helping Emma achieve her full potential and we are so grateful.”
That was a moment I will never forget showing what is possible if you believe and think outside of the box. Watching the work that Becky and our instructors do with our students has inspired me on a daily basis for all of these years.
“We never put any limits on our kids—always believing in the things they could do, not the pre-conceived list of things they could not do.”
Executive Director, Carousel Ranch
Becky: Every student, every day for the last 24 years has personally taught me something. But there’s one that will always stand out as she taught me that anything is possible, and to never underestimate what someone is capable of:
While working at Ahead With Horses I was asked by the caregiver of a 3 year old little girl if I would reach out to her father to see if he would be interested in having his daughter ride. She gave me his contact info and I called him explaining who I was and where I worked. He thought I was nuts!! You see his daughter, Dana, was born without arms, not even little stubs, and her legs also hadn’t developed normally as one was literally half the length of the other. He asked “how in the world is she going to ride a horse?” I asked him to come for a trial and see what we could figure out because we used vaulting on horseback, not riding in saddles…and they showed up, we put her on the horse, and off we went.
Ten years later when Denise and I started Carousel Ranch, I received a call from Dana. She wanted to learn how to really ride a horse, in a saddle, holding the reins and controlling the horse herself. I was up for the challenge as I knew this young lady was capable of achieving whatever goals she set for herself, and honored that she entrusted us to making it happen. It honestly didn’t take long for her to get the hang of it, keeping herself centered in the saddle while using her foot to hold their reins and control her equine…and I say equine because the animal we chose for her to learn how to ride was our most trusted mule Baby. Those two were so tuned in to each other they literally seemed to know what each other was thinking, where to go and at what speed.
We took a handful of riders and equines to a 2 day horse show for those with disabilities, and one of the most challenging classes for all of the participants was the obstacle class. None of our other riders could convince Baby, our mule, to do the course without stopping or plowing through them. Dana was watching on the sidelines waiting for her turn, and when it was her time to ride she got on and she “schooled” Baby before actually going into the arena while everyone watched. We could see once she entered the arena that the judges didn’t think she had a chance given the mules past go’s – but boy, did team Baby & Dana prove them wrong!! They aced it, making it look not only easy but fluid without faults. At the end of the two day show Dana was chosen as Rider of the Year, and Baby won over the hearts of everyone as well.
It’s Not Just a Pony Ride
Is there anything that you wish more people knew about Carousel Ranch?
Denise: I think simply that we are who we say we are…we do what we promise to do and we absolutely love this work. We have the most incredible team from staff members who work so hard to volunteers and board members – each of us there for only one reason…because we simply love these kids and want to make a difference. And, we are so grateful for every person who joins us in this cause because the reality is that it simply couldn’t happen otherwise.
Becky: Over the years our motto has been “it’s not just a pony ride” as some may think. A lot of time & thought has been put into creating our equestrian program which is based on meeting each of our students’ individual needs. We grow their program as they grow in skills and ability; we’re always finding new ways to challenge them in order to not become monotonous…we are very goal oriented.
And while we don’t do group lessons, we do love seeing the benefits of them interacting and socializing with one another while in the arena at the same time, or after their lessons have ended.
Because we don’t do group lessons, and each rider has the opportunity to work with a team of 2-3 staff & volunteers, we can only serve so many clients per week. This is why it takes time to get into the program, and why we have a waiting list. We’re hopeful that people are patient in knowing that their child will get in, and that it will be worth the wait, it just takes time unfortunately.
Carousel Ranch is Always Learning & Growing
How has Carousel Ranch improved or evolved over time?
Becky and I always say that if we could have imagined the Ranch as it is today — we probably wouldn’t have done it! It would have been so scary to imagine running an organization of this size. As noted above, we started this program with literally one student and one horse in Becky’s backyard. Today…we have over 20 staff members, own 20+ acres and a beautiful facility including a beautiful covered arena, serve 80 students a week in the equestrian program and run a vocational training program for young adults with special needs. Before Covid-19 we were serving over 100 students weekly between both programs. This would have been unimaginable to both of us when we started.
When we began, we agreed that we would never serve more than 60 students per week. We remember receiving our first $50 donation in the mail. The growth has been slow and gradual and that has made it do-able. Thinking back to the beginning and comparing to now, it is truly overwhelming and unbelievable.
Along the way we have been so blessed to be joined by so many amazing people who joined in the cause as staff, board members, supporters and friends and truly that is what caused us to get where we are today. We were just two women with a passion and a heart for this work — but Carousel Ranch would never have evolved without the countless others who joined in sharing that passion. We have evolved and learned so much along the way helping the ranch grow into what it is now. We have had much to learn along the way and acknowledge that we are always learning and growing.
What are some of your short term or long term goals for Carousel Ranch?
Over the past 5 years we have been working hard on organizational sustainability and we have made great progress. The programs have grown and the addition of Ready to Work! has enhanced and expanded our mission, with opportunities for future funding. The focus of our planning in the years to come are about long term sustainability and development of our Associate Program and Executive Directors — Katie Pope (Becky’s daughter) and Taylor Adachi — our literal next generation of leadership, ensuring that Carousel Ranch continues to thrive long beyond our ability to lead it. Of course for Becky and I, Carousel Ranch is literally an extension of ourselves, and we will ALWAYS be a part of it but as we look to the future, we feel grateful for these two young women who share our passion and have vision for the future.
There are so many goals ahead but the bottom line is simple…helping more children and young adults be the very best they can be.
Are there volunteer opportunities? How can our readers get involved?
There are unlimited ways that people can get involved! When we are not restricted by covid-19 regulations, we use volunteers on every day that we are open. If someone wants to come out and help in the equestrian therapy program they just have to call and schedule a time to come out (as we take up to two volunteers per day). Others choose to help in the office or with special events (we use hundreds for our big fundraiser in August). We have large groups and companies that come out with anywhere from 5 — 150+ volunteers to help with projects around the facility — from clean up to construction and everything in between…there is always so much to do and literally something for everyone.
From daily volunteers to occasional and groups to our amazing board of directors — they are all volunteers that we simply couldn’t do without. Give us a call or send an email and we can talk more about what might be the right fit for you.
“Please change a life through the priceless gift of therapy by donating to our Carousel Wishes & Valentine Kisses Campaign.”
Visit the Carousel Ranch website to learn more about their programs and how your donation can help a special child through the priceless gift of therapy.
What’s your favorite quote and why?
Denise: I really believe that in the end things work out as they are meant to even if we can’t imagine why at the time it is happening. Being kind, helping others and doing things for the right reasons resonate with me personally. I love this one…
“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different, because I was important in the life of a child.”
I really believe in making a difference one person at a time.
“To make a difference in someone’s life, you don’t have to be brilliant, rich, beautiful or perfect. You just have to care.”
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
For me the combination of these two put it all into perspective, one without the other would be a shame in the work that we provide to others.
How do you unwind or relax?
Denise: Relaxing is a bit tough for me sometimes, but I’m working on it! I absolutely love the beach. The sound and sight of the ocean is an instant source of relaxation for me. I enjoy reading, time with my family and friends or simply relaxing at home.
Becky: I love to hike, work on house projects, spend time reading and mostly spend special time with family. Our family has a vacation home at Lake Nacimiento in Paso Robles and we try to go often to enjoy everything the great outdoors has to offer. I also love traveling to new places and enjoying adventures…I’m not a just sitting on the beach kind of person, I need something to do almost all the time.
Pie, Cake, or Ice cream?
Denise: Oh my gosh —ALL of them. Pie with ice cream…cake with ice cream…you name it. Though I really try hard to not over indulge these days, sweets are my one true vice in life.
Becky: Yes, yes, and yes!! I love sweets and it would be impossible for me to choose just one.
“Carousel Ranch is dedicated to improving the lives of children and young adults with special needs. Through both our equestrian therapy and vocational training programs, we strive to create an atmosphere where every student can and will succeed…a place where therapy is disguised as fun.”
“I lose patience with those who preach being in the moment as if it’s always a pleasant thing. It’s not and that’s OK.”—Dr. Elvira Aletta
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